Activists target the buyers of stolen antiques: NPR

A still from a video by The Clooney Foundation for Justice showing the storage and warehouse of the Ain Dara archaeological site in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria. The facility was later looted by several armed groups and bulldozed sometime between 2019 and 2020.

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Activists target the buyers of stolen antiques: NPR

A still from a video by The Clooney Foundation for Justice showing the storage and warehouse of the Ain Dara archaeological site in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria. The facility was later looted by several armed groups and bulldozed sometime between 2019 and 2020.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice

It is well known that armed non-state groups in the Middle East fund themselves with oil and ransom. But a third in the pipeline fueling warlords and terrorists worldwide? The looting and sale of antiquities.

If activists have their way, the buyers and traders of those stolen cultural relics will face criminal repercussions.

The Docket, a project of The Clooney Foundation for Justice, has conducted international research into the smuggling of antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa, looking at the network that supplies looted artifacts to Western collectors and dealers. It is sharing its findings with law enforcement in the hopes that it will lead to criminal charges against those who purchase these artifacts, making them complicit in war crimes and terrorist funders.

Right now, there are some recent examples of high-profile individuals, such as Jean-Luc Martinez, a former Louvre director, who is accused of allegedly buying looted antiquities. But such cases are rare.

“We believe that these investigations … will not be successful unless there is a lot of public attention to the issue, unless conflict antiquities are tarnished as much as blood diamonds, or ivory or other forms of human trafficking,” he said. Anya Neistat, legal director of The Docket, shared some of the project’s findings with reporters in DC on Wednesday.

Here’s why: Looted antiquities from countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya have been sold online for years. Their sales are funding armed groups in those countries, funding their weapons and recruiting efforts. Those recruits then commit atrocities such as the rape and genocide of the Yazidis, a religious minority in the Middle East.

The looting continues even though the presence of ISIS in Syria has declined. Neistat said Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, who currently controls Syria’s Idlib region, continues to dig in the area. Besides, many of the items looted between 2012 and 2016 are now on the market.

ISIS-issued looting licenses

The looting was so formalized that ISIS had a system for licensing and taxing looters, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of history and archeology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

“Ultimately, ISIS was involved in every stage of the looting and human trafficking process,” he said, including “bringing in their own crews, using heavy machinery to dig up whole mountains…when you invest that kind of money in this.” kind of work, you’re making your investment back. So we know this was profitable.”

Activists target the buyers of stolen antiques: NPR

Looters dig at a site in Syria in 2014.

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Activists target the buyers of stolen antiques: NPR

Looters dig at a site in Syria in 2014.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice

In 2020, Interpol noted that 19,000 stolen artifacts were recovered in two international operations to crack down on the art trade. But there’s no way of really knowing how big this market is — due in part to fake paper — and how much money is actually being made selling these antiquities.

“I could see a group of artifacts that had been looted and we can show them to experts and estimate how much they were worth. But we never had the whole picture,” said Al-Azm, who is also the co-director of the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research project.

But what is clear is that Western collectors buy without fear of much retaliation, despite pre-existing provisions in international law that prohibit looting and include it as a war crime. Looting is also a criminal offense in most European jurisdictions and the United States.

But the system is such that between online sales, the use of Hawala (an informal money transfer system) and the presence of free ports (places to store shipments that are essentially black holes) in places like Geneva or Dubai, buyers and dealers can operate without much or no legal research.

Antonia David, legal program manager for The Docket, said dealers and galleries that finance terrorist groups with their purchases should also be held accountable.

David underlined what The Docket advocates as a universal norm in these cases: “You don’t necessarily have to prove that the accomplice had the same intent as the direct perpetrator.” In other words, the galleries and dealers don’t need to know that they paid for the antiquities to fund an armed group. Just that they paid.

Fooling buyers

Sam Andrew Hardy, head of illegal trade research at the Heritage Management Organization, said there are already ways to punish people who trade in art looted during the Holocaust.

“So why not do it for antiquities looted during other devastating massacres or occupations?” he asked.

When a dealer or collector is caught buying looted property, he is often faced with little more than a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, and having to return the item in question.

“When asked to return the artifacts, they are often kept anonymous to save their blushes, or they do it in public and are commended for their ethical behavior,” said Hardy, who also released the artifacts. follows closely. since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February and goes cross-border to Belarus and Russia.

Activists target the buyers of stolen antiques: NPR

Looted items presented to The Docket team during fieldwork in Lebanon in 2020.

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Activists target the buyers of stolen antiques: NPR

Looted items presented to The Docket team during fieldwork in Lebanon in 2020.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice

Neistat shares that frustration. She told reporters that, even after being caught multiple times, dealers often see a revival in business because “all the market cared about is that the items are authentic…and there’s no better proof of that than that return the items.”

When asked whether collectors or dealers aren’t treated as high-priority criminals because of their often well-paid connections and influential positions, she replied, “Absolutely.”

“Some cases just settle… There isn’t even a formal statement that the case has been dropped,” Neistat said. “And in many of these cases, we’re talking about people who are very well connected.”

The Docket hopes its investigations will lead to prosecution and the dismantling of the market — a goal Al-Azm says is more urgent than most people understand.

“Let me help you get it to the top of your list,” he said. “The next time someone hijacks a plane and flies into a building, it could be financed by a rich white guy who buys mosaics.”

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